WaPo’s Jim Hoagland celebrates Imre Kertesz’s Nobel Prize in literature:
- Imre Kertesz is a Holocaust survivor, an East European who was persecuted under communism, a free man since 1989 and this year’s winner of the Nobel Prize for literature. Who says book critics never get it right?
Sweden’s remarkable literary jury has for the second consecutive year held up a mirror to the values and politics of our times while honoring the eternality of great art. It rewards Kertesz “for writing that upholds the fragile experience of the individual against the barbaric arbitrariness of history.”
“Barbaric arbitrariness” is much on the mind of this capital city right now: A sniper has been stalking and killing citizens while Congress has been debating going to war against an Arab ruler who once promised to “burn Israel” to the ground, echoing Hitler’s determination to destroy Jews wherever he could.
Kertesz’s life and work — it is impossible to separate the two in a man who says, “When I am thinking of writing a new novel, I always think of Auschwitz” — cover a much broader stretch of history than our current attempts to deal with a sniper and with a bloodthirsty dictator in Iraq.
But the award serves to remind us how the darkest forces in the human spirit can be chased into retreat, if not total extinction. “The day after” can inspire hope as well as foreboding.
It is now “the day after” in Kertesz’s native Hungary and the rest of the former Warsaw Pact. Nations that endured decades of genocidal fascism and brutal Communist rule have established functioning democracies and free-market economies. They have not collapsed into ethnic wars or turned again to black-shirted dictators, as many geostrategists fretted they would once the Cold War ended.
There was a covert racism present in much of that reasoning, just as there is covert racism submerged today in much of the argument over “the day after” in Iraq and the Persian Gulf.
Just as Hungarians, Lithuanians or Russians were judged by many senior U.S. officials of the day as being incapable of rapidly replacing centuries of authoritarian rule with democracy, Arabs are being described today as knowing and caring nothing about human rights or democratic freedoms, of not having “Jeffersonian” leaders ready to instantly take over, even of not having democratic genes.
This is not to minimize the problems that Iraq and other Arab nations will face once Saddam Hussein is deposed, or to suggest that it is not legitimate or necessary to ask what comes next. Nor do I mean to hold up Eastern Europe as nirvana. It is not, as people from that region will quickly tell you.
The point is broader: History can imprison minds as well as instruct them. To ignore the past is folly, as philosopher George Santayana famously warned. But to assume that things will always be as they have been is another form of the very error against which Santayana warned. That is what “the day after” in Eastern Europe and Russia and “the morning after” in Afghanistan tell us.
The most brutal forms of oppression can inspire people to write with exquisite sensitivity, as Kertesz does in “Fateless,” a tale of survival in a concentration camp, and in “Kaddish for a Child Not Born,” in which a man refuses to bring children into a world that could produce Auschwitz and Buchenwald.
….The day will also come when Arab writers, most of whom must be silent today, will be free to speak the truth in and to their own lands. They should look at the Nobel jury’s choice of Imre Kertesz, a Jew, as a beacon of hope for their own destiny.